Henry Bibby, Jim Bibby's little brother, the 6'1", 179-pound veteran NBA guard, steps into the batter's box. He surveys the ball field, eyes the opposition. It's late August, just before the start of basketball training camp, and Bibby is playing for the 76ers in a benefit softball game at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. He steps back. Slowly, he raises his bat until the fat end points at the centerfield wall. Babe Ruth, they say, once made a similar gesture.
Bibby takes the first pitch, a ball. The second is down the middle, and he swings, stroking a liner into right center, not far from where he had pointed. The ball skips between two outfielders, and Henry Bibby, crafty, tough, as unlikely a nine-year NBA man as there has ever been, wheels around the bases.
Jim Bibby. Henry Bibby's older brother, the 6'5", 250-pound star pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, shakes the sweat from his shooting hand. He dribbles the basketball twice, then glares at the rim, which is about 25 feet away. He is standing by himself in late summer on an asphalt court near his townhouse in Pittsburgh.
"Bibby's alone," he says. "Bibby fires." The ball arcs, spins around the iron ring and falls out.
March 2, 1981
After charging in and grabbing the rebound, he pivots and leaps into the air. With both hands gripping the ball, Jim Bibby, the veteran righthander who will finish the season at 19-6, his best major league record ever, jams the ball viciously through the hoop.
What can you say about brothers? That they're alike yet dissimilar? That they can never stop fighting, competing with one another, even in the other's sport? ("Henry knows he can't score buckets on me," says Jim. "I think with a couple days practice I could hit some home runs," says Henry.) But they are inextricably bound together, more or less forever. Dostoevski covered this ground a century ago in The Brothers Karamazov.
Henry and Jim Bibby, ages 31 and 36, respectively, are brothers from a sisterless family. There is a third sibling, Fred, 38. A fine athlete himself, Fred was one leg of a fraternal triangle back on the Bibby family's farm near Franklinton, N.C. (pop. 870). To understand the parts they played, here's a true-life boyhood scene:
It's a hot summer day, circa 1960. Jim is standing on the dusty court behind the farmhouse, aimlessly bouncing Henry's basketball off the white wooden backboard their father, Charlie Bibby, has erected for his sons. Henry is begging Jim for his ball. Henry leaps again and again but is too short to reach it. Hearing the commotion, Fred appears and demands that Jim give Henry his ball. An argument ensues. Jim and Fred begin to fight. The two larger brothers tumble into the house. Mrs. Bibby gets quickly out of the way. They each weigh more than 200 pounds, and during the tussle a bed collapses, a door is ripped from its hinges. Little Henry begins to cry. Angry as he is with Jim and thankful as he is to Fred, he can't stand the prospect of seeing either of his brothers hurt.
"I'm very proud of my brothers," says Fred Bibby, now a high school phys ed teacher in Richmond. "I take magazines just to keep up with their careers, and they always call me to talk about their athletic problems. But back on the farm we were all different. In a way, Henry was more like me, more aggressive, more into hustling around. Jim would always drag along, taking it easy. Jim picked on Henry. I protected Henry. And Henry cried. But in the end, really, all three of us could get the job done."
What's remarkable about Jim and Henry is that at advanced ages (Jim is the 31st-oldest player in major league baseball; Henry is the 33rd-oldest player in the NBA) and without great tools (Jim has been told that he's far too muscular to be a pitcher; Henry has been described by 76er Coach Billy Cunningham as "lacking in size, speed and jumping ability"), they are still getting the job done. Jim, in fact, has improved steadily throughout his career and has now become, as Pittsburgh Manager Chuck Tanner says, "the ace of my staff, one of the most dominant pitchers in the league."
Jim's won-loss percentage (.760) was the best in the National League last season, and his two-year percentage of .756 (31 wins and 10 losses) is the best in the majors over that stretch. He pitched a scoreless inning in the 1980 All-Star Game, and his record since 1976 is 64-37, compared to 36-49 for his first four big league seasons. Last year, until he suffered a case of the wilds in late August and early September, losing three games and getting no decision in another, he was a leading candidate for the league's Cy Young Award.
Henry, on the other hand, started his athletic career fast and has been hanging on ever since. At UCLA he was a two-time All-America and played on NCAA championship teams in each of his three varsity seasons, 1969-72. While big Jim was laboring in Tidewater of the International League and recovering from back surgery, little Henry, by far the smallest of the Bibby brothers—Fred goes 6'4", 230—was in dreamland 3,000 miles from home, passing to Wicks and Wilkes and Walton, quarterbacking the Bruins to 87 wins in 90 games.
The pros, however, weren't impressed. Henry was drafted in the fourth round, by the Knicks, an embarrassment for a first-team All-America. In the NBA he looked old-fashioned, slow, out of place. He still does. Indeed, Henry is one of the few players in the league with an authentic set shot. Earl Monroe, who played with Henry on the Knicks, recalls that it was fundamentals and "game knowledge" that got Henry into the pros. "You used to see that from guys who went to UCLA and learned to play the game under John Wooden," says Monroe. "Someday they'll have to bring players like him back in and teach the game again. Players like Henry are dying out."
Henry scraped through 2½ seasons with New York, riding the bench for the 1973 NBA champions, before being dealt to New Orleans. After a year and a half there, he was sold by the Jazz, and it appeared his career was coming to an end. But the 76ers salvaged him and, in an unexpected show of confidence, made him a starting guard.
For four seasons Henry was a small pillar of sanity on the NBA's most flamboyant team, a paragon of discipline among Dunkin' Doctors, All-World dignitaries and Chocolate Archdukes of Funkdom. But during the 1979-80 season Henry was dropped to third guard behind Lionel Hollins and Maurice Cheeks. When the 76ers picked two big backcourtmen, Andrew Toney and Clyde Austin, in the first two rounds of the 1980 draft, Henry knew his days were numbered, even though his 9.0 scoring average in 1979-80 was the same as his career mark and his three-point field-goal shooting—21.2% regular season, 38.5% during playoffs—had led the team.
"It has never been easy for Henry in pro ball," said Cunningham at the start of this season. "And it's never going to be. I'll tell you what he is, though. He's a survivor." As if to test that notion, Cunningham cut Bibby a few days later.
This time it seemed Henry was really through. But he soon signed with the San Diego Clippers. He had literally sold himself, over the phone, to Coach Paul Silas, a man Henry had once called "the dirtiest player in the NBA." "He got me with his confidence and attitude," says Silas. "You'd think those things would be commonplace in this league, but they're not."
Henry moved to San Diego's Nightlight Inn while his wife, Virginia, and two sons, Henry, 6, and Mike, 2, plus Virginia's son Dane, 12, by her first marriage, remained in the Bibbys' permanent residence in Phoenix. That's what it has come down to now for Henry: living out of suitcases, hustling, scrounging, taking pay cuts, hanging in there. "I play for financial reasons," says Henry. "For five or six years it's been that way. It's a job. It's not fun."
Henry was a smart baseball player and a top student at Person Albion High in Franklinton. His former baseball coach, James Foster, feels Henry could've been a major-leaguer—he had all the tools: arm, glove, stick—but Henry didn't like the game. It was too static, too easygoing, too boring. "I finally gave him the key to the gym so he could play basketball all the time," says Foster, now the athletic director at Franklinton High.
Jim disliked basketball but was forced to play because, says Foster, he was the "biggest thing in town." Jim eventually followed Fred to Fayetteville (N.C.) State on a basketball scholarship. "Fred was a star on the team and he got Jim the scholarship," explains Henry. "Jim was a hot dog, the 11th man. He'd get in a game, look up in the stands, score two points and think it was a big deal."
What Jim loved was baseball—the easy pace, the camaraderie, the fact that he could throw a fastball through a tree. "He could bring that thing," says Foster. "I remember a night game up in Henderson. Jim was pitching and the lights were kind of bad. Maybe he was a little wild. The kids on the other team were scared to death of his fastball. I kept telling Jim to throw fastballs, but the catcher, Joe Mack Holden, kept calling for curves. Finally, I called time and asked Joe Mack what was going on. 'Coach,' he said. 'I can't see his fastball.' "
Had Henry started this season on schedule, he would've played in his 327th consecutive game in the opener, the fifth-longest streak among active NBA players. Now, after missing the first seven games while cementing the San Diego deal, Henry has extended his unofficial streak—minus those seven—to 381, a remarkable feat considering his size and his age.
But Bibby brothers are durable and tough. Jim has been throwing heaters since he was a boy without ever experiencing arm trouble. His only serious injury occurred in 1970 when he was with Tidewater, a Mets' farm club. His back, weakened by a congenital bone spur, gave out one day as he was covering first base. An operation fused his first and second vertebrae. He was given a 50-50 chance of playing again. Jim was back with Tidewater the next year, going 15-6 with 150 strikeouts. His back hasn't bothered him since.
The first thing that strikes one about Jim Bibby is his size. Actually, not his size so much as the arrangement of it. When fans talk about big pitchers, they usually mean pear-shaped waddlers of the Mickey Lolich-Rick Reuschel ilk. But Jim is big like a weightlifter, like a defensive tackle, like another Pittsburgh athlete, Joe Greene of the Steelers, whom he knows and for whom he is occasionally mistaken. Jim's biceps are huge, his chest is deep, his thighs bulge. Harvey Haddix, a Pirate coach who is 5'9" and a former star pitcher, cannot recall another big league pitcher built like Jim. "In the old days they didn't even have men that size," says Haddix.
The Bibbys have tall parents—Charlie is 6'1", his wife, Evelyn, is 5'9"—which accounts for the sons' height. The boys were made to work hard on the farm, which increased their strength. And the children's bulk, at least in the cases of Fred and Jim, can be attributed to their eating, which Henry was no slouch at, either. Says Charlie, now 62, a gaunt, droll man with a long nose and sad eyes, "If you know anything about hogs, you know how they push away the smaller ones at feeding time. That's what my sons did to me." When little Henry first went to UCLA, he lived with a white family in Westwood. He'd never been west of North Carolina before, and his knowledge of white people was "the Ku Klux Klan and people who poured oil in wells after integration," but what stunned him the most about his hosts was how little they ate. "Right after breakfast I had to sneak off to a restaurant and eat again," he says. Henry has since cut back on his intake, as has Fred, but Jim still packs it in. "Jim's the only guy I've ever known who has to have two plates in front of him," says Fred. "One for meat, one for greens. He sweats like the devil when he eats, too."
It has taken Jim all these years to learn to control his great bulk and make the parts, as Haddix says, "work in unison with each other." Even Jim's hands are enormous; last season he held eight baseballs in his right hand at once, palm down, breaking the unofficial major league record shared by Sandy Koufax and Johnny Bench.
From the beginning Jim had stuff, but as he points out, "I just threw one fastball after another and I was always wild." In his first season in the minors, with the Mets' rookie league farm at Marion, Va., he hung around some with Nolan Ryan, another flamethrowing novice. "It was 1965, and neither one of us knew a damn thing about baseball," says Jim. "We were both ungodly wild." Jim pitched in 13 games that season and finished with an 11.25 ERA.
After a stint in Vietnam, Jim rejoined the Mets system in 1968 and began slowly working his way upward, with a year off to recuperate from the back surgery. In 1971, the same year Henry won his second NCAA championship, the Mets called Jim up briefly. He sat in the bullpen at Shea Stadium, eager and scared, but didn't play.
In 1972, after 7½ years as Mets property but without having thrown a single major league pitch, Jim was traded to St. Louis. He was nearly 28. He got his first start in St. Louis on Labor Day, 1972, in the second game of a double-header against the Expos. He won 8-7, while Bob Gibson, who pitched the opener, lost 1-0. It made Jim think that anything could happen in baseball.
In 1973 Jim started to get wild again, and the Cardinals traded him to the Texas Rangers. On July 30 of that year, throwing "the hardest I ever threw," Jim pitched a no-hitter against the Oakland A's. He threw just five breaking balls all night, relying instead on "smoke, heat, gas." Reggie Jackson came up to Jim later and said that he thought he had thrown faster in that game than anyone else could. But the control came and went, and when it was gone, Jim was terrible.
"It's very hard for a big man to be coordinated," says Haddix. "Jim was never in control of himself. In 1974 he won 19 games and lost 19. That's incredible. You know that kind of record comes from not throwing strikes. But for someone like Jim, with hands that size...well, it's like you or me trying to throw a golf ball accurately."
In 1975 Texas traded Jim to Cleveland, where Haddix was then the pitching coach. Haddix saw immediately that Jim's "delivery was gone," and together the two men worked to regain it. By 1976 Jim could finally get a curveball over the plate. He then began work on a slider and a changeup, pitches that would keep hitters from waiting for his fastball. In 1978 Jim came to the Pirates as a free agent, with Haddix following the next year. They still work constantly on Jim's form—keeping his kick smooth, his body straight, his follow-through complete. "If he hadn't wanted it real bad," sums up Haddix, "he'd have been a goner. You don't hang on in the big leagues because you look good in uniform."
Last November, when it was announced that Jim had finished third in the 1980 Cy Young Award voting, both Henry and Fred Bibby called to congratulate him. The oldest and youngest Bibby brothers would love to see Jim win all the awards there are, to become a household name, a media superstar. "He could handle it," says Fred. "He's carefree, he likes excitement, he thinks he's good-looking. It would be good for him."
In fact, Jim is doing quite well without much recognition. He recently got a degree in phys ed from Lynchburg (Va.) College, and he has money safely tucked away. Everything is in order, and it has reinforced his easy vision of life.
One day last fall in the Pirates' locker room, Jim was sitting next to Pitcher John Candelaria, who was telling Jim that his second divorce proceeding looked like it was going to turn out O.K. Jim said that was good. Candelaria said, yeah, it was good. The only thing was, he'd lost a wife he didn't want to lose.
"Why don't you find somebody you like and just take it easy?" Bibby asked with sincerity rare for the locker room.
Candelaria shrugged. "How can I, when I don't like myself?"
That statement bothered Jim. "I don't understand that," he said later. "How can you not be happy with yourself?"
It's near the end of the 1980 baseball season, and Henry Bibby is in an airplane on his way to Pittsburgh. Because of their conflicting schedules and the distance between their homes—Jim, his wife, Jackie, and their daughters, Tanya, 9, and Tamara, 4, make their permanent residence in Madison Heights, Va.—Henry and Jim rarely see each other now. Nonetheless, Henry feels their relationship is a good one, even though it has its sore spots. Henry remembers the boyhood injustices—Jim held him down and choked him; Jim wouldn't let him play games with the older boys; Jim took Henry's miniature bows and arrows, which he had made, and broke them to bits.
"He was a mischievous kid," says Henry. "He was happy-go-lucky and lazy, and he was always wrecking Dad's stuff. And he'd do strange things, like the day he dipped a glove in silver paint and painted my brother's brand new bike.
"I've never been one to get revenge, but one time I took some scissors and cut up a big roll of roofing sheets. When Dad came home, he was mad as hell. I told him Jim did it. He knew it had to be Jim because of the kind of kid Jim was. And then Dad beat Jim half to death. Jim walked by me and said, 'I'm going to get you. I'm never going to let you play basketball again. Ever.' "
Henry's attention drifts off for a moment. "Thank God for Fred," he continues. "He was a more likable guy."
Jim, as befits an older brother, doesn't recall the past as vividly. Henry, he feels, has heightened the drama because of his "runt" perspective. Jim even feels his attitude toward his brother has benefited Henry's career. "You see that three-point shot Henry puts up? That's the same shot he learned in our backyard. He had to shoot from out there because if he came inside he got no pity."
When Henry's plane lands, Jim is waiting at the gate. "When I grow up, I'm going to be a ball park," he says, taking Henry's basketball and slam-dunking it through the airport.
Henry can be outgoing and fast with lines, but with Jim he's reserved. He listens as Jim talks baseball. At one point Henry asks, in all seriousness, if Rod Carew and George Brett are on the same team. For a moment Jim looks as though he is considering a wisecrack. But he merely says that Brett plays for the Royals, Carew for the Angels. Twenty years ago he never would have been that tolerant.
Upon reaching Jim's townhouse, Henry greets the family, and then he and Jim begin kidding each other about the old days on the farm.
"I always got the whipping for them," Jim says, pointing at Henry and including Fred in absentia. "My parents wouldn't even give me a BB gun."
"They knew you'd shoot somebody," Henry says. "But they gave you one anyway."
"Yeah, when I was 20."
"What was the first thing you did with it? You shot Fred."
"Twenty years old," says Jim. "And I wanted it when I was a kid."
The brothers walk out to the basketball court and play HORSE and one-on-one. Jim is a good shooter and beats Henry at most of the shooting games. When they play one-on-one, however, Jim cheats openly, yelling "Foul!" and "Out of bounds!" and "My ball!" at random. When Henry drives, Jim bear-hugs him, lifts him up and takes the ball.
Later, Jim takes Henry to Three Rivers Stadium and into the Pirates' locker room. It has been said that the Pirates have the wildest locker room in sports. Today, even though the team has just dropped two straight to Atlanta and fallen into second place behind Montreal, the place is alive with yelling, bad jokes, swearing and loud music. Jim fits in nicely, giving and taking insults with the best.
Henry is somewhat aghast. "I don't think many basketball coaches would like this," he tells Jim when they're outside.
During batting practice Jim and Henry sit in the stands near the Pirate dugout and chat about Jim's game. There's an easiness to it all—the afternoon sun beaming down, the crack of bats in the empty stadium. Jim and Henry seem to be proud to be in each other's company. For years Henry got most of the sports glory. "Really?" people would say. "Henry has an older brother in baseball?" Now it seems Jim will be getting more attention; sometime soon he may be getting all of it. The brothers have different personalities, each suited to his game. They are different people—they have come to know that—and it makes things easy.
Henry has to catch a plane, and Jim walks him back through the cacophonous locker room, through the halls and out to the sidewalk that encircles the stadium. He and Henry say goodby, thank each other and promise to stay in touch. There are no hugs, no theatrics.
On the way to the airport Henry slouches down in the seat of his cab. The trace of a smile stays on his face. After a while he looks up at the ceiling. "That was good, seeing Jim," he says. "I kind of didn't want to leave."